Retrospectives play a vital part in Agile; the opportunity they provide for a team to adapt and improve is core to the delivery of value through continuous improvement.

The Scrum Guide states that the purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness.

“The Scrum Team inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done. The Scrum Team discusses what went well during the Sprint, what problems it encountered, and how those problems were (or were not) solved. The Scrum Team identifies the most helpful changes to improve its effectiveness.”

Given the critical nature of the retrospective, it seems eminently sensible to allocate resources to ensure its effectiveness is maximized.

Enter the Scrum Master.

What is a Scrum Master?

When it comes to building agile teams that deliver value using the Scrum framework, a Scrum Master is fundamental to the mix. They act as a servant leader as well as an influencer and change agent, facilitating meetings and removing obstacles to help the team succeed. They serve as a bridge between product management and development.

Along with the Product Owner, the Scrum Master is a member of the leadership group, and is generally responsible for creating an environment in which their team operates.

From planning to retrospectives, the Scrum Master facilitates the sprint. They guide, coach and lead the team, keeping them on-track and focused, whilst managing the process, culture and overall vibe of the team.

The Scrum Master’s responsibilities

So what does a Scrum Master actually do?

In broad terms, the Scrum Master –

  • Sets up and facilitates agile meetings
  • Coaches and encourages the Scrum principles and values.
  • solves logistical and meta problems
  • supports the team and addresses team dynamics
  • works as an interface between the team and the product owners as well as others outside the team
  • Protecting the team from outside interruptions and distractions
  • Report on team progress

Besides the retrospective, they also facilitate daily stand ups, sprint planning meetings, sprint reviews and team member 1 on 1’s.

A great Scrum Master should be just as comfortable discussing the team’s priorities and processes with senior management as they are ordering the team pizza for a tough final push.

How does a Scrum Master differ from a Product Owner?

The Scrum Master can be thought of as an intermediary. They can insulate the team from minor changes, revisions or confusion that could derail the sprint.

What this means is that the purview of the Product Owner is external to the organization (product value, the market, customers and the competition); that of the Scrum Master is internal.

Additionally, with the Scrum Master’s focus on enabling the Team to do work, the Product Owner may better focus on the big picture—rather than the day-to-day.

Ultimately, the Product Owner has the final say over the product direction and strategy but will work closely to manage the backlog, understand the trade off and to find ways to deliver value.

Does every team need a Scrum Master?

When it really boils down to it, Scrum isn’t possible without the Scrum Master. Without one, you are doing something a watered down version, often called scrum-but.

They foster the required environment and serve as a buffer between the team and the rest of the organization. At its core, Scrum works well because of the clear focus it gives to each member of the team; without the Scrum Master, that focus is compromised.

With that said, it is possible for a Scrum Team to be self organizing once things are rolling. This is also one of the goals of a scrum master. With the initial foundations laid and appropriate environment created, the team can get by without a Scrum Master if absolutely necessary. Some teams also rotate the Scrum Master role within their team, or have access to a community of practice (group of Scrum Masters), external consultants or independent agile consultants.

Does the Scrum Master actually do the work?

Generally speaking—no.

Unless you are in a small team where one person simply acts as Scrum Master for the team, the actual development and tasks fall under the mandate of the agile scrum team. They don’t and should not interfere with the technical issues of the team.

The Scrum Master on the other hand helps to solve problems and provide assistance, guidance and seek clarification as needed. If the sprint is progressing smoothly, they should never need to do work. The role of the Scrum Master is to help every member of their team realize some serious games by ensuring they are free to focus on what they do best.

Strategy is left with the Product Managers, writing the best code is left to the developers and Jason from sales can focus on getting those leads!

What is the Scrum Master’s role in the Sprint Retrospective?

Facilitate and moderate agile meetings

There’s a reason orchestras have conductors; they ensure each group of musicians play in such a way so as to deliver a harmonious performance.

Similarly, the Scrum Master conducts the retrospective to ensure it stays on track, remains unbiased, free of groupthink and is a psychologically safe space.

Scrum Masters ensure the meeting is organized from choosing a retrospective template based on a theme or area of focus area, ensure cadence and also run the meeting to ensure that the team stays focused.

They move the team through the processes of brainstorming, prioritizing key discussions items, then generating actions for continuous improvement that are followed through. This ranges from hosting the daily stand up meetings all the way through to the sprint retrospective.

Encourage transparency and honest communication

For a Sprint Retrospective meeting to work well, there needs to open, unbiased and clear communication and feedback. The Scrum Master ensures this happens, and makes sure all voices are heard equally.

Meetings are often prone to groupthink and bias, and a Scrum context doesn’t magically solve this. The entire Scrum Team needs to be aware of this potential, with the Scrum Master actively supporting them so they deliver honest, critical feedback for the benefit of the team.

It’s common for people to have different opinions. When those opinions clash, it’s the Scrum Master’s responsibility to ensure both sides are heard, issues are resolved and the meeting continues. This can be a complex, delicate task and one with which the Scrum Master needs to be highly adept.

Coach team members

For organizations that are new to Scrum, a key part of the role is to ensure that team members understand and employ Agile processes on a day to day basis. They help to create self-managed teams and to promote a sense of ownership and utility.

This could be mentoring new team members to teach them about the Scrum Values and principles and how to integrate this into their daily practice.

Document, capture and follow through on actions

Appropriately documenting the retrospective ensures –

  • feedback, issues, and action items are captured and tracked
  • notes are available for those unable to attend the retrospective
  • notes can be referenced throughout the sprint to ensure shared understanding
  • memory does not distort facts

Ensuring accountability could be a follow up after the meeting or going through the list from previous meetings at the start of the retrospective. Helping remove impediments during the sprint will help the team be more successful when it comes time to reflect at the retro.

Keep time

Timeboxing is widely acknowledged to be an effective technique to increase productivity. With the big picture in view, tasks are prioritized, in order to make the most out of the time allotted to them.

The retrospective is the perfect opportunity for the Scrum Master to model timeboxing; not only is it important to lead by example, it ensures time isn’t wasted and team members remain engaged with the task at hand.

A useful end of meeting evaluation is the Return on Time Invested or ‘ROTI’ available in all of TeamRetro’s templates. In under a minute, you can quickly gather whether or not there was value gained by the team in the meeting.

Acts as the intermediary with the rest of the organization.

Outside of the retrospective, the Scrum Master can report on actions that the team has generated and can bring ideas and suggestions to the relevant stakeholders. They may create visuals such as Scrum Boards to communicate progress, or simply share feedback from the Team Health Checks to highlight potential blockages for the team.

They work with others to ensure that the team members are not in too many unimportant meetings and work with product owners and other stakeholders to redistribute the workload. Ultimately their goal is to remove distractions and blockages in order to help the team focus.

In summary

An effective Scrum Master can significantly enhance the value delivered by a retrospective. By employing strong facilitation skills, acting as the intermediary between product owner, and the development team, and focusing on the processes, environment and culture of the team, the scrum master can set the team up for success. The value they bring to the organization through outcomes, continuous improvement and helping to create self organizing teams is just some of the reasons why Scrum Masters are such a valued team member.

Using an online retrospective tool such as TeamRetro allows the Scrum Master to focus on the needs of the team rather than the mechanics of the retrospective. Ideas and comments can be captured instantly and prioritized for discussions. Actions can be tracked, shared or integrated and followed up at the next meeting. Each person in the team has an equal opportunity to contribute in a psychologically safe space and can be time boxed to ensure everyone stays on task.